The Real Reasons Why Calorie Tracking isn't Getting You to Your Goals
Calorie tracking seems to be the gold standard for weight loss, but I see a lot of things that are wrong with it. In the beginning of my career as a dietitian I tried to help clients count and track their calories on apps like My Fitness Pal. It wasn’t until I learned through experience helping multiple people that I began to notice patterns and some major issues. Many people have similar goals when they start out using a calorie tracking app. I’ll list the goals here in this post as well as the reasons why calorie tracking is not helping you reach those goals.
1.Goal- Track Calories or Macros for Weight Loss and Eating in a Deficit
As with all weight loss diets there is a calorie deficit (the aim is to burn more calories than what you intake). Calorie tracking is recommended because it allows a person to see how many calories they are consuming on any given day. One of the issues is that the data in these apps is often incorrect. This can really throw off what you think your total caloric intake is. You will see some foods listed such as a cup of oatmeal with a calorie range of 50-300 calories. Another issue is when going off of food labels from food products, the calories listed is also an inaccurate range. Food manufacturers are allowed to have a 20% margin of error; meaning if the label says 100 calories per serving, it could contain anywhere from 80-120 calories.
What’s more is that everyone’s absorption of calories is different. Newer studies are pointing to our gut’s microbiome affecting a person’s absorption of nutrients. Other factors that affect nutrient absorption are fiber content of food, how much energy it takes our bodies to digest the food, and other nutrients that impact absorption when combined (i.e. vitamin c enhances iron absorption). Combine this with how portion sizes are often misjudged and inputted into the app, and you’ve got a very low accuracy for understanding how many calories your body is actually using/consuming.
In addition, being in a calorie deficit has been shown to have multiple negative side effects including, but not limited to slowing the rate at which your body burns calories (slower metabolism), increases cravings for high fat and sugar foods, increases your appetite, reduces your energy level, reduces your sex drive, reduces amount of muscle tissue, and increases fat-storage enzymes and decreases fat release enzymes.
2. Goal- Be Healthier
People assume that in order to be healthier they should lose weight or start watching what they eat. This is another reason why people turn to calorie tracking. There are two main issues with this which commonly occur when people track their food intake: They either get obsessed with tracking or have increased feelings of guilt or shame with the foods they are eating. Neither of these outcomes is in line with the goal of becoming healthier because it’s putting your physical health above your mental health. Your mental health matters! In fact, it impacts your physical health!
It’s easy to become obsessed with tracking your food intake especially if you are the competitive type and are seeking to control everything you eat. This is a disordered eating behavior and it’s a big red flag. People who become obsessed with controlling their food intake often don’t have many meaningful things going on in their life because of how much time and effort it takes to monitor your eating. This is a problem because it ultimately leads the person to living an unfulfilling life. Feeling guilty about what you’re eating when tracking your food intake is another disordered eating trait. Many calorie tracking apps are designed to make you feel guilty by exclaiming whenever you go over a certain limit (i.e. going over your recommended fat for the day). Increased anxiety and guilt with eating is not going to improve your health, not one bit.
3. Goal- Keep an Eye on Your Eating (Reduce binging/emotional/ overeating)
I definitely see this a lot in people who don’t trust themselves with food. For people who have been on numerous diets to try to lose weight, they’ve been through the wringer when it comes to extreme patterns with eating. The constant back and forth with restricting and binging makes them question their ability to have normalcy around food. Tracking food intake seems to be a solution to this problem, when actually it makes it much worse. The same issues as listed above, obsessiveness and guilt, can increase binge eating behavior. People who binge or emotionally eat tend to have “black and white” thinking or “all or nothing” thinking. Whenever they don’t live up to the tracking or eating expectations, it’s a big trigger for a binge. Giving yourself external rules to follow in order to normalize your eating is not the way to go. Instead, letting go of food rules and “black and white” thinking has been proven to be much more effective.
4. Goal- Have More Confidence in Yourself
Losing weight is seen as a way to gain confidence in oneself. This is also wrong. Obsessing over how your body looks and is perceived by others is only going to make you less confident. You’ll be worried anytime your body doesn’t fit into the idealized norm of society. (*Hint- It’s impossible to achieve- maybe only 1% of people can look like models) To become more confident you have to care more about how you perceive yourself rather than how others perceive you. Body image is not a body issue; It’s an image issue. How you see yourself in your mind and placing emphasis on the qualities you possess as a human is how you can become more confident. You don’t need to change your body! I know this is hard to wrap your head around. I get it.
Try picturing a confident person. What qualities do they possess? What is their body language telling you? What is their tone of voice or how they speak telling you? Do you think they care so much about what others think of them? Confidence is shown in how you act, which impacts how you look- not the other way around!
Need More Tips for Improving Your Body Image? Click Here!
What to do Instead of Tracking Calories
I know this post probably came off as impertinent, but I am just tired of diet culture and its effect on people’s relationship with food and their body. Long term efforts to try to lose weight and keep it off are not supported in the research. I hope you know that you can still have a healthy and balanced diet, improve your health, reduce binge and emotional eating, and be more confident in yourself, all without dieting.
If you don’t feel ready to give up the tracking, I understand. It can be a hard thing to let go of; Much like letting go of weighing yourself. Just know that when you want to try a different approach, I’ll be here for you!
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Picture above is by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash